Johns Hopkins Gazette: August 18, 1997

On Faculty:
Still Theorizing
After All These

Christine A. Rowett
News and Information
John Holland greets an expected visitor to his home with a teasing request for identification.

"You know," he explains, "there are stories out there about people taking advantage of old men."

He is a light-hearted, engaging scientist who takes his work seriously.

Holland, 77, retired from what is now the Sociology Department in 1980, but he has hardly stopped working. He recently finished revisions on the third edition of Making Vocational Choices: A Theory of Vocational Personalities and Work Environments. The work, published by Psychological Assessment Resources, first made its debut in 1959 with another publisher. Since then, it has been updated several times.

"This book is my sixth attempt to create a more satisfying theory of careers," he writes in the preface. "I never seem to get it quite right."

Holland's theory states that all people fit into one or more personality types: realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising and conventional. (These are the basis for his RIASEC theory, which is widely used by career counseling professionals.) He applies the same six characteristics to work and home environments, and says some outcomes can be determined by examining the combinations of personality types and environments. For example, professional choices and levels of achievement may be predicted, he says.

PAR also publishes several varieties of evaluations titled Self-Directed Searches, including "The Occupations Finder," "You and Your Career" and "A Guide to Educational and Career Planning" that may accompany the book.

Holland's own makeup ("I used to be a sweet boy from Nebraska, but I got fed up") includes artistic, social and investigative components.

"I've got a relatively flat profile, actually," he says. "That makes you more versatile, complex and quite a bit confused."

A graduate of the University of Omaha who received his master's and Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Minnesota, Holland arrived at Hopkins in 1969. He served as a professor and director of the Center for Social Organization of Schools before his "quasi-retirement."

"See this photographer? He fits my type theory," Holland says upon meeting yet another visitor. "This guy's a big A. Does he come in a business suit? No. He's wearing the high tennis shoes, a non-conformist."

In his commencement speech in May, university President William R. Brody cited several well-known professionals who did not excel at their chosen careers until late in life. "Grandma Moses didn't take to painting until she was 78 years of age," he said.

"Many of you will have not one career, or two, but several-- perhaps even dozens," Brody said. "We're living longer, we're working longer, and new careers are being defined every day."

Though Holland does not necessarily agree with Brody's assessment, he is convinced that students can be better prepared for professional lives if they evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. His Self-Directed Search forms, which have also been adapted for those with reading and learning difficulties, include statements such as "I understand the 'Big Bang' theory of the universe" and "I can refinish furniture or woodwork." Participants then total the number of statements with which they agree and interpret the findings on their own.

"The techniques are childlike they're so simple," Holland says. "Personality and interest inventories are kind of an interview about life histories.

"If a person lists all their aspirations in the same field, the odds are extremely high that within seven years a person will be involved in that or a related field," he says. "You can also use it to detect people who are confused. If a person wants to become an electrician, biologist, social worker or work in business, you've got a very confused person. You don't need to be a psychologist or well-trained person to figure that out."

While some may balk at being pigeonholed into one of six areas, Holland says inevitably most people remain where they excel.

"Certain changes are hard to make. The artistic types rarely seem to move. And the science types tend to stay there," he says. "Some engineers frequently become entrepreneurs who are using their background."

The simplicity of his tests and theories is what makes them effective, Holland says.

"Some scientists think that because this is so easy to understand, it can't amount to anything," he said. "In science there is often a sales mission, though people don't like to admit that. In fact, anybody can get this message if they want it."

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